By Chuck Fithian, HCA Curator of Archaeology
The initial actions and campaigns of the war took place along the Canadian border and on the high seas. However, that would change in late 1812. In December, the British government would declare the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays to be in a state of blockade, and by the following February and March, Royal Navy vessels under the command of Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren arrived to impose the directives of the British government.
The overall purpose of the naval campaign was the disruption of the maritime economies of the region, and the suppression or elimination of United States Navy vessels. Writing to Admiral Warren, the First Lord of the Admiralty made it clear that “we do not intend this as a mere paper blockade.”
Soon after the arrival of British forces, American shipping was captured or destroyed and maritime communities across the region were attacked. Among these was the town of Lewes just inside the Delaware Capes. Recognizing the town’s maritime importance, Commodore Sir John Poo Beresford subjected it to a twenty-two-hour bombardment and threatened a landing and attack by sailors and Royal Marines in April of 1813.The American defenders, commanded by Colonel Samuel Boyer Davis, put up a resolute defense and the landing did not take place. Afterwards Colonel Davis wrote to Governor Haslet assuring him that the “honor of the state had not been tarnished.”
Throughout the rest of the year, Delawareans were continually on the defense against water-borne raids which proved to be highly destructive to bay and river shipping and commerce. 1813 would also witness a significant naval engagement between United States Navy and Royal Navy forces.
Based at New Castle, Delaware, which had become an important base for the United States Navy during the early Federal period, the gunboats of the Delaware Flotilla attacked the sloop of war Martin which had come to ground on Crow’s Shoals near the entrance of Delaware Bay. In a two-and-one-half-hour battle American forces nearly succeeded in capturing the Martin until being driven off by the superior firepower of HMS Junon which arrived to assist the Martin.
The naval campaign in the Delaware is characterized by the use of aggressive small-boat tactics and raids ashore, and the use of new technologies in what could be considered the early nineteenth century’s terror weapons. Congreve rockets were used in the Lewes bombardment, which was the first time this weapon was used against the Americans during the war.
Later, the Americans would deploy Robert Fulton’s “torpedoes,” known as “infernals,” against British vessels off Lewes. Previously unknown to have been used during the 1813 campaign in the Delaware Bay and River, the deployment of these floating mines was a countermeasure used by the Americans to break the stranglehold of the British blockade of the Atlantic Coast.
Chuck Fithian holds a master’s degree in history from Salisbury University and has extensive expertise in military and maritime history/archaeology, in material-culture studies, and social history of Colonial- and Revolutionary War-era America. Mr. Fithian is responsible for the curation of the archaeological collections of the state of Delaware and for conducting historical/archaeological research. His current work includes directing the research and conservation of the artifact collection and hull of His Majesty’s Sloop DeBraak and conducting a survey of Delaware sites related to the War of 1812.